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The High Girders: Tay Bridge Disaster, 1879…

The High Girders: Tay Bridge Disaster, 1879

by John Prebble

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And so the train crept out across the Bridge of Tay,
Until it was about half-way,
Then the central girders with a crash gave way,
And down went train and bridge into the Tay.

And the Storm Fiend loudly did bray,
Because twenty-seven lives had been taken away
On the last Sabbath Day of 1879
Which shall be remembered for a very long time.

As soon as the calamity became known,
The word from mouth to mouth was blown,
And the cry rang out all o'er the town:
"Good heavens! The Tay Bridge has blown down!"

Thank you, William McGonagall. Don't call us... But the Tay Bridge Disaster was a notable engineering failure of its day, with much in common with the sinking of the 'Titanic' 33 years later. In both cases, a major act of engineering hubris met its nemesis from the natural world. Sir Thomas Bouch was one of the pre-eminent engineers of his day, and the Tay Bridge a major engineering achievement, the longest over-water bridge then yet built. It received the Royal seal of approval as it shortened the route for Queen Victoria to reach her Scottish estate at Balmoral. Not, of course, the only reason for its existence, but a major selling feature ensuring its appearance in all the popular prints of the day.

But little more than a year after its opening, the bridge failed during a violent storm, taking a train full of passengers with it. Bouch went from hero to villain overnight, and the accident enquiry uncovered a tale of corners cut in both design and construction. Debate has raged since over whether the scientific advice Bouch was given over wind loadings was accurate, but the impact of this accident has never been lessened. Through popular culture, the use of the accident in a novel by A.J. Cronin, the awful poetry of William McGonagall (and its 20th-century popularisation by Spike Milligan) and a TV documentary based on this book, the disaster has lived on in popular memory.

Prebble's book was an early exercise in popular scientific forensic study, and it has remained one of the classics of the genre. But let us leave the last word to William McGonagall:

The stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed. ( )
1 vote RobertDay | Mar 9, 2010 |
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